Susan Mustard Gilliland, 1960
As an experienced prison volunteer, I asked the Chaplain to give me a hard assignment. Chaplain R. called, “Susan, I have just the one for you. Her name is Marita. She’s angry, a fighter and always in trouble. She has a lengthy list of disciplinary reports which include insubordination, fighting, disobeying orders, contraband, misusing meds, disruptive behavior, and disrespect toward officers.” Perfect! I believed I could connect, face to face, with anyone. Soon, I met with Marita.
We met in a private room. Well, nothing is ever really private in a prison, but no one could hear our conversation. I asked Marita to tell me her story. She said her brother and one-like-a-brother had been shot and killed. Their deaths were recent and a week apart. She dissolved into tears as she talked about how much she loved her grandmother and brothers. Their deaths had devastated her, and she worried about her grandmother. Her mother was incarcerated in another state and her church-going father had another family. She had seen much violence in her young life (20’s) and fighting in the streets was survival for her.
In high school she was identified as “one from the inner-city with potential” and awarded a Kauffman Scholarship that would assist her to attend college. She loved to write and anticipated study in journalism. However, she detoured into shoplifting. She was good at it. Marita loved “shopping and giving gifts” to her many nieces and nephews. Eventually, that ended with an arrest, conviction and incarceration.
We continued to meet weekly, and then she had another fight. Very common in I Cell House. It is overcrowded, noisy, and there is no privacy ever for the most violent and unstable offenders. She was sent to the “hole” for 90 days. We continued to meet weekly. Only this time, I sat outside her cell and we looked and talked to one another through the slot for passing meals. At times I sat on the floor. Other times the officer would bring me an old plastic chair. Marita had a Bible and not much else. We read Job, Jonah and Ruth. Week by week we extracted “life lessons” from the Old Testament. She was amazed to find stories similar to her own. We both loved our times together and looked forward to the next one.
Eventually, Marita got out of segregation, served her sentence and was released. She returned to her neighborhood, found life as challenging as before, and a job hard to come by. I met her in Kansas City for lunch a couple of times, and we were so happy to see each other again. Now I’ve lost track of her. She may still have my phone number, but hers apparently has changed. I hope that she will contact me someday. According to the Department of Corrections website, she is not in prison. I’m happy about that!
Editor’s Note: Susan attended elementary and middle school with many Class of 1960 members. Her family moved, however, and she graduated from Southeast in 1960. She has moved back to Wichita and keeps in touch with friends from our class.
See also Susan Mustard Gilliland, “Going Home Again.”